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All projects have requirements. Business projects frequently have changing requirements. Every project, by definition, has an objective to produce something of value. To do that, the team needs to understand what is needed (i.e, the requirements) to achieve that goal. In this blog, I share some free tips that will help you successfully manage changing project requirements.

You may be defining the requirements for a new piece of software, or the requirements necessary to win a major lawsuit, or the requirements for a non-profit fundraiser, or a marketing campaign or a new strategic plan. It doesn’t matter. You have a set of requirements that are needed to achieve the project objectives.

Some industries, especially software development, use the term project requirements. Other industries may not use that term, but that’s what it is.

The business world operates in a rapidly changing environment; in part, because of rapid advances in technology and an increasing amount of available information. In this environment, it makes no sense to spend weeks planning the project in great detail. Rather, we need to remain as flexible as possible and allow for changing requirements.

Here are some tips to help you successfully manage changing project requirements.

Choose smaller projects that add value.

In this rapidly changing environment, picking a project with a two-year life span is risky. Break the project down into multiple projects that can be tackled sequentially.

Know your key stakeholders.

Understand the people on your project. It is one of the most important things you can do. Whether it’s the product manager who can’t make decisions, or the silent but angry stakeholder who is spreading poison in the organization, or the quiet but highly effective team member who wants more challenges, knowing your stakeholders can help you navigate change.

What is the nature of the implementation team? All teams are different, and the type of folks you have on your team will have a big influence on how you manage your project. Do you have a team of seasoned subject matter experts who have never worked together before, and likely never will after this project? Do you have a group of administrative personnel who work together all the time? Are the people all located in the same place, or spread all over the world? Some people seem to want to be told what to do and if you have a team of folks like that, a coaching strategy may not work. If you are working with a team of professionals, they likely don’t want to be managed much, and a coaching strategy will be more effective.

What is the nature of management? Are you working for a client who is difficult and wants daily feedback? Or a client who has hired you to do the work and is willing to let you run with the work, and provide feedback every few weeks? Are you working in government where the pressure of contract audits fuels more scrutiny?

Meet people where they are, and recognize that “people can’t embrace change unless they feel safe.” (This quote comes from one of my favorite project management books. The Deadline – A Novel About Project Management, by Tom DeMarco, published 1997, Dorset House Publishing.)

“People can’t embrace change unless they feel safe.” Tom DeMarco Click To Tweet

Determine whether changing requirements represent a change in scope.

It is completely normal for things to change as projects move through various stages. The challenge is to understand when a changing requirement represents a change in scope.

For example, suppose you are working on a project that includes a re-write of the procurement manual for an organization. Does adding new procurement policies represent a change in scope? It depends on whether the subjects for these policies were included in the original manual. If so, this would not represent a change in scope.

For another example, suppose you are working on the revised HR policy manual and suppose your project included the preparation of an executive summary for potential pay for performance programs. At the time the project plan was done, the ultimate compensation philosophy had not been determined. If the organization decides to move into any kind of pay for performance system, detailed policies and procedures that outline the new pay for performance system would represent an increased scope.

Just as with children, try first to say yes. Be willing to say no. 

Seasoned parents know that children grow up to repeat what they hear from their parents and caregivers. If every request is met by no, that’s the word children learn first. That’s why I try hard to meet reasonable requests from clients. I operate on the assumption that we are all on the same team and want what is best for the organization.

That said there are times when we must say no. An alternative that you can use first is to say, yes, and I need you to understand that this change will increase costs, delay progress, etc. We owe it to each other to be honest, and if what you are being asked to do is simply unreasonable, unethical, unacceptably risky, bad policy, or humanly impossible, we need to stand firm and say no.

Understand the factors that are driving change in the organization.

What are the significant factors that are causing change? Is it legislative changes, technological advancements, a growth industry, people who can’t make decisions, or a business re-organization?

Sometimes change is beyond your control. Sometimes, if you think about it, you can predict where the changes are likely to come from and you can execute your project to minimize the impact of change.

Don’t let sunk costs drive future decision-making.

When priorities change, ask yourself if you are emotionally hanging on to the past. Are you thinking thoughts, such as:

  • We’ve already built 90% of this software feature so let’s just finish it, or
  • We’ve created more than half of the training videos for the new product launch, so we should launch according to schedule.

What happens if your latest research suggests that the new software feature or product is not going to be competitive?

Don’t let sunk costs drive future decision-making. Click To Tweet

Focus on delivering value and reducing risks.

In a rapidly changing world, ask yourself what you can do next that will create the most value. At this point, you should have broken the project down into the essential activities. Sometimes, activities need to be done linearly. Other times there is something in that list that would create value or reduce risks if it were accomplished more quickly. Get it done.

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